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Jesus, the Syrophoenician Woman, and Little Dogs

by  Kyle Butt, M.A.

Any honest student of the Bible must admit certain biblical episodes seem to be problematic when encountered for the first time. Upon further investigation, however, the apparent difficulties in the text vanish and the meanings become increasingly clear. One episode in the life of Jesus that historically has been misunderstood by some Bible believers and misrepresented by the skeptic is Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman. Mark records the episode as follows:

For a woman whose young daughter had an unclean spirit heard about Him [Jesus—KB], and she came and fell at His feet. The woman was a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth, and she kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter. But Jesus said to her, “Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she answered and said to Him, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs under the table eat from the children’s crumbs.” Then He said to her, “For this saying go your way; the demon has gone out of your daughter.” And when she had come to her house, she found the demon gone out, and her daughter lying on the bed (7:25-30; see also Matthew 15:21-28).

Based on a cursory reading of the text, one may be startled that Jesus referred to this Gentile woman as a “little dog.”

Jesus’ statement in this context certainly has not escaped the notice of the skeptical community. The prolific infidel Steve Wells documented hundreds of cases of alleged intolerance in the biblical text. Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician women is number 421 on his list. Of the episode, Wells wrote: “Jesus initially refuses to cast out a devil from a Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, calling the woman a ‘dog’. After much pleading, he finally agrees to cast out the devil” (2006).

Even many religious writers and speakers view Jesus’ statements to the woman as unkind, intolerant, racially slurred, and offensive. Dean Breidenthal, in a sermon posted under the auspices of the Princeton University Office of Religious Life, said concerning Jesus’ comment: “I suspect we would not be so bothered by Jesus’ unkind words to the Syrophoenician woman if they were not directed against the Gentile community. Those of us who are Gentile Christians have less trouble with Jesus’ invectives when they are directed against the Jewish leadership of his day” (2003, emp. added). Please do not miss the implication of Breidenthal’s comment. If the statement made by Jesus actually could be construed as unkind, then Jesus would be guilty of violating one of the primary characteristics of love, since love “suffers long and is kind” (1 Corinthians 13:4), which would cast doubt on His deity. Is it true that Jesus exhibited an unkind attitude in His treatment of the Syrophoenician woman?

To the Jews First and Also to the Greeks

In order for one to understand Jesus’ statement, he or she must recognize the primary purpose of the comment. Jesus was passing through the land of the Gentiles (Greeks) and was approached by a woman who was not a Jew. While Jesus’ message would eventually reach the Gentile world, it is evident from the Scriptures that the Jewish nation would be the initial recipient of that message. In his account of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, Matthew recorded that Jesus said: “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24). When Jesus sent the twelve apostles on the “limited commission,” He told them: “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6).

Just before Jesus ascended to heaven after His resurrection, He informed the apostles: “[A]nd you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The sequence of places where the apostles would witness manifests the order in which the Gospel would be preached (i.e., the Jews first and then the Gentiles). In addition, the apostle Paul, in his epistle to the church at Rome, stated: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (1:16). Jesus’ statement to the Syrophoenician woman indicated that the Jewish nation was Jesus’ primary target for evangelism during His earthly ministry.

How Far Can an Animal Illustration Be Taken?

To our 21st-century ears, the idea that Jesus would refer to the Gentiles as “little dogs” has the potential to sound belittling and unkind. When we consider how we often use animal terms in illustrative or idiomatic ways, however, Jesus’ comments are much more benign. For instance, suppose a particular lawyer exhibits unyielding tenacity. We might say he is a “bulldog” when he deals with the evidence. Or we might say that a person is “as cute as a puppy” or has “puppy dog eyes.” If someone has a lucky day, we might say something like “every dog has its day.” Or if an adult refuses to learn to use new technology, we might say that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” In addition, one might say that a person “works like a dog,” is the “top dog” at the office, or is “dog tired.” Obviously, to call someone “top dog” would convey no derogatory connotation.

For Jesus’ statement to be construed as unkind or wrong in some way, a person would be forced to prove that the illustration or idiom He used to refer to the Gentiles as “little dogs” must be taken in a derogatory fashion. Such cannot be proved. In fact, the term Jesus used for “little dogs” could easily be taken in an illustrative way without any type of unkind insinuation. In his commentary on Mark, renowned commentator R.C.H. Lenski translated the Greek term used by Jesus (kunaria) as “little pet dogs.” Lenski further noted concerning Jesus statement: “In the Orient dogs have no owners but run wild and serve as scavengers for all garbage and offal.... It is an entirely different conception when Jesus speaks of ‘little pet dogs’ in referring to the Gentiles. These have owners who keep them even in the house and feed them by throwing them bits from the table” (1961, p. 304). Lenski goes on to write concerning Jesus’ statement: “All that Jesus does is to ask the disciples and the woman to accept the divine plan that Jesus must work out his mission among the Jews.... Any share of Gentile individuals in any of these blessings can only be incidental during Jesus’ ministry in Israel” (pp. 304-305). In regard to the non-derogatory nature of Jesus’ comment to the Gentile woman, Allen Black wrote: “The form of his statement is proverbial. And the basis of the proverb is not an antipathy for Gentiles, but the necessary Jewish focus of Jesus’ earthly ministry” (1995, p. 137).

So before people “dog” Jesus for the way He used an animal illustration, they might need to reconsider that “their bark is much worse than their bite” when it comes to insinuating that Jesus was wrong. It seems that they are simply “barking up the wrong tree” by attempting to call Jesus’ character into question. They need to “call off the dogs” on this one and “let sleeping dogs lie.”

REFERENCES

Black, Allen (1995), The Book of Mark (Joplin, MO: College Press).

Breidenthal, Dean (2003), “The Children’s Bread,” [On-line], URL: http://web.princeton.edu/sites/chapel/Sermon%20Files/2003_sermons/ 090703.htm.

Lenski, R.C.H. (1961), The Interpretation of Mark’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg).

Wells, Steve (2006), Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, [On-line], URL: http://www.Skepticsannotatedbible.com.




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